WHAT IS MAPPALUJO?


CHAPTER 18

COLD, SHIVERING. Been up all night, drinking, staring at the photograph, the one from the data booth. The woman's face. The killer. The broken dance of colours, abstract, her features hidden behind the pixels. A secret identity. I can't stop looking at her. What's wrong with me?

The phone's been ringing, Miguel's voice on the machine. 'Webb? Webb, pick up. I know you're there.' He's seen the news on television.

I keep thinking about Jessica. If I could have only…

Every channel's the same. They keep showing the film over and over, that last scene, where the dog gets shot. Bullet in the lens, dead centre. Green silk, the veil, the gun. The case blown open. Some government official comes on, telling us to stay off the Charisma juice, the bad batch. Zeno Corporation rolls out a spokesman, says it must be a bootleg strain, nothing to do with them. All these flickering images. Elvis, Monroe, Valentino, and now the latest, Joe Smoke. Except of course it's not him, not strictly him, when they examine the body. Film of the ghost disappearing. Thomas Cooper. Magician, comedian. Famous for his tricks going wrong all the time. Died 1984, heart attack, on stage at Her Majesty's Theatre. Collapsing to his knees, and then falling backwards into the curtain. The audience thinking it's a part of the act, laughing at him. Laughing at the death. Fast forward. Crazy Joe Smoke buys himself a bite from a scorpion, ends up as a punch line to one of his own bad jokes, another man's image floating around him. They say it took an hour for the spirit to fade away completely.

They keep dying the same death, the same death as the star they're following. The whole process speeded up, inevitable. That's it, that's the flaw in the new Charisma drug. So then, who's the woman, the killer? Who is she? What's she doing, a retrieval job? Working for Zeno? Working alone? What happened this time, she got there too late? What is it I'm missing, and why this strange need within me?

The news channel is running a zoom shot. Moving in closer and closer on the woman's mask. But no matter how far they go, whatever the scale, the same shapes keep appearing. Constellations. Fractals. There is no final image; it can't be resolved. Likewise, with the photograph; the same blurred face is there every time, no matter how hard I stare. Recognition flickers, and then it swirls away.

Away. Sleepless. Down to the last mouthful. Scared of the dreams I'll have. Jessica's body, the way she looked that last time...

When we first met, she was a high-class whore. A runaway, a bondage slave. I was still a cop back then, investigating a murder, a visiting businessman shot dead on the terrace of a restaurant. Hit and run. Jessica was the guy's paid consort for the evening. She got blood all over her special dress, the shiny yellow plastic affair. We never did get that case solved. Years later, when we were married and I'd long since quit the force, she tells me she wore the dress on purpose, to mark out the victim. That was her real paid work that sultry evening.

She was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. And when her own turn to die came around, there I was getting drunk in a bar, downtown.

It's coming up on nine months. Nine months…

The phone keeps ringing. Miguel again, wanting to see me. I should answer. Without his help, the man who killed my wife would still be walking free. But what can I say to him, what the fuck can I say? Christ, and it gets to me then, it really does. If I could only have been there. The glass falls from my hand.
I wake up some few hours later, slumped in the chair, groggy, the screen filled with static. I feel sick, something is clouding my eyes. The photograph. I pick it up, it's like I'm falling into the image, dissolving. The heart's technology at work. Eyes, lips, hair, skin tone, becoming. Memories, mathematics. The smile, unfolding.

The way she looked that one last time…

The ghost, becoming. Jessica's ghost.

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WHAT IS MAPPALUJO?